The terms ‘middle age’ and ‘midlife’ mean much the same. They describe the third quarter of life – the period after young adulthood and before old age. As life expectancy has increased, each life phase has changed. In 1950 people moved into midlife at about 35 and claimed a government pension at 60, which signalled the start of older age. In the 21st century midlife started at about 45 and superannuation was claimed at 65 – typically signifying the end of the midlife period.
In the 2013 census there were 1,094,979 people aged between 45 and 64, comprising 26% of the total population. Of this age group 48% were men and 52% women, which was very close to the proportions found in the overall population – women do not begin to significantly outnumber men until both groups reach their 70s.
Crisis? What crisis?
Middle-aged people are sometimes thought to be vulnerable to a ‘midlife crisis’ – youth has passed and old age is approaching, causing emotional turmoil. Crisis victims supposedly make radical life changes such as starting a completely new career, ending long-standing relationships and adopting new appearances. The stereotypical male suffering from a midlife crisis buys an impractical sports car and leaves his wife for a new partner half his age. In reality, there is little evidence that midlife adults have more crises than other age groups.
From the mid-20th century to the 21st century
In the mid-20th century work was plentiful. Most families consisted of married parents and their children. Fathers worked full-time, mothers stayed home to care for children, and when young people left school they generally went straight to work, usually leaving home as well. Because life expectancy was lower – around 68 years for men and 73 for women in the mid-1950s – fewer people had to care for ageing parents.
In many homes in the 21st century, all adults worked full-time. By the 2010s life expectancy had risen to 80 for men and 83 for women, so many midlife adults had one or both parents alive, who were likely to need help as they aged. Midlife people often had dependent children at home, as it was common to have children later in life. Most young people moved into part-time or full-time study when they finished school, sometimes remaining in the family home. Since the 1990s young people have had to pay for their tertiary education, and their parents were expected to support them until they turned 25. Some midlife people also looked after their grandchildren.
There were also significantly more blended or stepfamilies, as well as single parents. Many midlife adults supported people outside their original family – stepchildren, step-grandchildren and stepparents, current and former in-laws, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. In one 2004 study, only half the children who received help were born from their parents’ current relationship.